Advisory Members of Classis

“Where in a church there are more ministers than one, also those not delegated according to the foregoing article shall have the right to attend classis with advisory vote.”

―Article 42, D.K.O. 

The proposed revision of the above article by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches leaves the article substantially unchanged. The only difference worthy of note is that the revision speaks of an “advisory voice” while in our Church Order the phraseology is “advisory vote.” The Holland speaks of “een adviseerende stem.” The wording of the revision is to be preferred if for no other reason than that ministers attending Classis under the stipulations of this rule have really no “vote” at all. They are given the right to speak. They have a “voice” in the Classis but not a “vote.”

The reason for the provisions of this article is to be found in an attempt to meet, as much as possible, some standard of equality and fairness in the churches’ representation at the Classis. Whereas the previous article of the Church Order stipulated that each church shall delegate a minister and an elder or, in the case a church is without a minister, two elders, the question arises whether this is really fair in view of the fact that some churches are numerically very small while others have large numbers. A church, for example, that has twenty or twenty-five families has as much voice and voting power at the Classis as a church numbering three or four hundred families. If then, representation at the Classis is to be calculated on the basis of the number of families in a given church, a rule would have to be adopted according to which each church would be authorized to send one delegate to Classis for each certain number of families in its membership. If this figure is set, let us, at twenty five families, a consistory of a church numbering two hundred families would send eight delegates to Classis while a congregation of thirty families would have only one delegate to represent it. This arrangement is not agreeable with the Reformed conception of the church and could, therefore, not be adopted. For principle reasons it must be rejected. Hence, we have the preferred provision of Article 42. 

Another thing that has considerable bearing upon the occasion and necessity of the provision is the historical circumstances out of which this need arose in the sixteenth century. During that century the more educated and capable ministers served in the larger churches while many of the smaller congregations had ministers who had rather meager training and little knowledge of church government. The result of this was that when each church sent two delegates to the Classis, the business of the Classis was conducted largely by those who were least qualified to perform the work and the services of many capable men went to waste. Besides, the problems confronting the churches in those years were many and difficult to solve. The Reformed churches were in their formative years. The leaders of these churches could not look back to an age of experience or learn from history’s mistakes. In 1581 the Synod was overtured to remedy the Classical situation by giving all the ministers of the churches decisive vote at the Classis. The Synod, however, rejected this proposal and matters remained as before. Again in 1597the matter was considered again but left undecided. Then it came up before the historic Synod of 1618-19 and there it was decided to give all the ministers decisive vote. Churches that had more than one minister received as many votes at the Classis in all matters except those that concerned their own churches or persons. The latter provision was intended to protect the churches from any possible domination or unfairness. This decision, however, was not above criticism and although it stood for almost three hundred years, the churches in the Netherlands in 1905 reverted back to the decision of 1578 as found in Article 41 of the Church Order and that stipulates that each church shall delegate one minister and one elder to the Classis. In 1914 the Christian Reformed Church in this country adopted the same position. It is easily seen that this position is in direct conflict with that taken by the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 or rather that Dort in these years took a position in direct conflict with Article 41 of the Church Order. However, the removal of this contradiction did not solve the real problem and so the provision was added in Article 42 by which ministers not delegated to the Classis would be given advisory voice. The services and talents of capable men would then not go to waste but at the same time all of the churches, regardless of size, would be equally represented in the decisive vote on all matters brought before the Classis. 

For several reasons this rule is a very good one but the question the fairness of limiting this provision to ministers of the Word. Would it not be possible to extend this privilege of advisory voice to elders as well or at least, as was once the practice in Reformed Churches, to those elders of the places where the Classis meets? For example, there may be one church that has twenty-five elders and another church that has only two. Both delegate one elder to the Classis. This hardly seems fair. In the larger Consistory where it is assumed the Classis meets four times a year, an elder would be delegated to Classis only once in six years and, consequently, with the term of office three years, many of them would never attend. On the other hand, in the smaller consistory each elder would be delegated to the Classis six times during his three-year tenure of office. Of course, the practical difficulty with a provision giving all these elders advisory voice is that the Classis becomes too large a body. In a large Classis it can easily be seen that this is not in the best interests of the Classis or the Churches and it is likely for this reason that such provision is not made. In our churches, however, the problem is not too serious. Our Classes are small and most of our consistories are small. Besides, it is not said that all the elders would be present or be able to be present at the meetings of Classis. It is not likely then that too many would be present so that the work of the Classis would be impaired but because of this very real possibility it is probably better that Classis by special motion grant an advisory voice to elders present as the occasion and need may arise. 

The principle reason that delegation to Classis is limited to one elder and one minister from each church and that, therefore, other ministers are given only “advisory voice” is that under the Reformed set-up the Classis is composed not of individuals but of churches. The churches, not the ministers and elders, constitute the individual unit in our Classical organization. This is not the case, for example, in the Presbyterian Church. Monsma and Van Dellen point out in “The Church Order Commentary” that “according to Presbyterian practice a minister becomes a member of his Presbytery, or as we would say, Classis. He presides over the Session (Consistory) of the church with which he is connected and is called “Moderator” of the Session, but he is not a member of the church which he serves. He is a member of the Presbytery. According to Reformed church polity, however, no individual is, strictly speaking, a member of Classis in. A minister or elder can only be said to be a member of Classis in the sense that his church has delegated him to represent it at a certain Classical meeting.” 

0n the basis of this principle the only equitable way of determining the delegation of Consistories to Classis is that all shall be equally represented. Arbitrarily this has been fixed at the number two but there would be no principle objection to having two elders and the minister from each church provided all the churches are represented alike. And, as far as the objection is concerned that this is not fair to the larger churches, the authors of the above quotation suggest that the proper way to correct this “inequality” is that the overly large churches be divided into two or more smaller churches. But the main point remains “that every church unit is a self governing manifestation of the body of Christ standing on a par as to rights and authority with every other church.” 

Finally, a word about “advisory vote“! A minister who attends the Classis and is given this privilege is one who has the right to speak on all issues and problems that are taken up by the Classis but he has no voice in the vote that is taken and by which these matters are finally decided. It is sometimes asked whether the term “advisory” implies that one should refrain from speaking until his advice is sought by the Classis? Should, he speak only when asked to give advice on a certain matter or is he free to participate in all the discussions as much as he desires? Evidently the latter is meant so that the idea is that when he speaks he does so only in an advisory capacity. This, of course, is true also of the voices of those delegates to Classis who are fully authorized to take part in the deliberations and transactions of that body as long as they are merely participating in the debate and discussion of the issues. When the latter speaks in the vote that is finally called this is no longer the case. Then their voice is decisive and in this capacity the “advisory delegate” to Classis cannot speak. He has only one voice and that is “advisory.” He speaks in an advisory capacity but his advice does not have to be solicited. It may come voluntarily. It may be added, however, that the privilege of advisory vote can also be abused and that liberty to speak freely at all times does not mean that one may dominate the discussion. He should speak only as the occasion necessitates and for the rest leave the matters of the Classis in the hands of those who are fully delegated to transact them. Failure to do this is to misuse one’s rights while the careful exercise of this privilege will tend toward making the advice given more respected. 

G.V.d.B.